Lean this! Many women already feel like pretzels — (maybe bonsai)

By Caitlin Kelly

Are we there yet?


Every day someone new, usually another highly-educated white HNW woman, is exhorting us to lean in, or lean out, or duck and cover or…something.

Mostly, I just want a martini and a nap.

I hate this barrage of “self-help” books telling other women to lean in, (i.e. work your ass off for a corporate employer and climb that ladder stat!) — or to lean out (bake brownies and say Om!).

Or, even better — from a millionaire who gets writers to fill her website free — on how to thrive.


Maybe because I grew up in the 1970s, in the era of second-wave feminism, in Toronto. We thought — really, we did! — it would be a hell of of lot better than this by now.

Ms. magazine had just launched and my late step-mother used to dance around the living room singing along to Helen Reddy’s 1972 anthem of female empowerment: I Am Woman:

“I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore…”

From Wikipedia:

In the year that Gloria Steinem‘s Ms. magazine was launched in the US and Cleo in Australia, the song quickly captured the imagination of the burgeoning women’s movement. National Organization for Women founder Betty Friedan was later to write that in 1973, a gala entertainment night in Washington DC at the NOW annual convention closed with the playing of “I Am Woman”. “Suddenly,” she said, “women got out of their seats and started dancing around the hotel ballroom and joining hands in a circle that got larger and larger until maybe a thousand of us were dancing and singing, ‘I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.’ It was a spontaneous, beautiful expression of the exhilaration we all felt in those years, women really moving as women.”[4]

So we all rocketed out into the world, excited and determined it would all be different now.


(Insert bitter, knowing laugh.)


Then we grew up.

So I’m weary of this latest panoply of corporate-suck-up advice and endless set of prescriptions — all of it coming from wealthy, educated, powerful and connected women — on how we should live.

I did like this story in Pacific Standard:

I intentionally lean out of my career. A lot. I do this because there are only 24 hours in a day, and when I ask myself, “If I died tomorrow, what would I want people to remember me for?” it isn’t anything I’ve published, any TV appearance I’ve made, or anything like that.

I’d like my son to remember that, almost every morning, I snuggled with him for 15 minutes before we finally got up together. I’d like him to remember that I had the door open and a hug ready for him when he ran home from the school bus, almost every day. I’d like him to remember that I took up the clarinet, and started lessons with him with his teacher, so we could play duets together and so that he could be my secondary teacher. I’d like him to remember all the after-school walks we took to the river. I’d like him to remember how happy I was when he had a snow day and could stay home with me.

I’d like my mate to remember all that, and to remember that I became a gardener, reluctantly at first, and that I did so because he loves planting but hates to weed. I’d like him to remember all the dinner parties with friends I arranged for us. I’d like him to remember the house concerts, like the one last night.

And I fully agree that we need to carefully consider the real economic costs of when to chase (more) income instead of enjoying a less-frenzied private life, non-stop careerism versus time lavished on family, friends or just…sitting still.

The real problem?

This is such a privileged conversation.

You can only “lean out” if you have:

savings; if you and your partner and/or your dependents remain in good health and if your housing costs are free or fixed, (i.e. rent controlled or stabilized or you have a fixed-rate mortgage, all of which rely on luck or a steady income from somewhere. Which is…?)

If you lean out, away from well-paid work, you also need someone else with a reliable, decent income to subsidize or wholly support your reduced paid workload — because fuel, food, medicine, insurance, education, clothing, and specialized skills like dentists, all cost real money.

Not everyone can live in a hut or barter for everything.

And too many women are just worn thin, millions of them working in crappy, dangerous, depressing and exhausting low-wage jobs with no hope of raises or promotions or benefits.

They aren’t wearing Prada and angling for a corner office — but something as simple and unachievable as a steady schedule that actually allows them to plan doctor visits or meet their kids’ teacher(s) or take a class that might propel them out of that enervating low-wage ghetto.

I see little communal concern (Hello, Occupy Wall Street?!), and no shared outrage at massive corporate profits/stagnant hiring/excessive C-suite compensation, and the lowest union membership — 7 percent private, 11 percent public — since the Great Depression.

I don’t think unions are the only solution.

But focusing relentlessly only on our individual needs isn’t going to do much either. Too many workers, too many women, are still getting screwed economically and politically.

How about you?

Which way are you leaning these days?

26 thoughts on “Lean this! Many women already feel like pretzels — (maybe bonsai)

  1. I am not leaning at all. I am standing upright, as tall and proud and defiant as I can. I don’t need to lean because I think for myself and run my life how I have decided to, against popular opinion and conventional wisdom, but true to my convictions and values.

    I am a divorced homeschooling mother of 4 boys who is running a small homebased business and starting up a new business, in my efforts to survive. A few years ago, I found myself midlife with nothing and starting over completely from scratch. No retirement, no insurance, no safety net, no equity. Everyone I knew said throw those kids in school. I get no alimony and nominal support. I WILLED my children to be ok through the meltdown of my then known life. I only did what generations of strong and courageous women have done before me. I pulled on my boots and got busy making a new life. It’s very hard but there is an exhilaration in doing hard things you never ever thought you could do.

    Who has time to read books about leaning? I am just working on standing up straight and tall, with my shoulders back.

    1. Thanks for this. If only the media paid more attention to women like you. Inspiring to know what we’re fully capable of, even when we fear we’re not.

      Sorry to hear there’s no alimony for you and your family. He got off lightly.

  2. Caitlin,
    I really look forward to your posts. I admire your experience, your insights, your passion, and your outspokenness. Thank you for being you and for being so outspoken!

  3. I did hear an interview with the authors who said that, despite their accomplishments, they still had feelings of incompetence and they were trying to help women overcome it. So there’s that.
    My approach is slightly different. I know the system is rigged.
    I have no interest in climbing that corporate ladder because everyone gets pushed off of it sooner or later. I treat all employers with the same phony veneer of respect that they show to me. It’s like a cocktail party without the booze: Hello, so nice to see you. Talk soon.
    I keep my head down, do the best job I can, don’t complain, and get as much money as possible. I work by contract so that my resume is always on the job boards. I keep nothing personal in the office so that when the contract ends, I can walk out the door without the humiliation of carrying my things out in a cardboard box.
    It’s lonely and I don’t make friends at work except with other contractors. On the other hand, I’ve managed to make a comfortable living from it. I take nice vacations and I can use my money to help other women.
    And once in a blue moon, I find a company that I actually respect.

    1. Kate, thanks…

      WHY…seriously…do such women self-indulge (and I do use that word deliberately) in CHOOSING to feel incompetent — even after they’ve grabbed a brass ring ($$$$, power, fame, whatever) that so many wanted and only they achieved? I find it whiny and weird. You got it! You had what it took, so smile, say thanks and be bloody grateful! Why do they assume all women feel as they do? That strikes me as patronizing as shit.

      I admire your cool-blooded analysis and approach. When I got canned, at 3pm on a Wednesday after a front-page story 2 wks earlier, from my last newspaper job, my desk drawers were barely filled and I made sure they Fed Exed that fucking cardboard box. No way was I doing the walk of shame. What that sucker cost (and I did not pay for it), the dignity is worth it.

  4. I’m leaning in the direction that there is a lot of discrimination against women in this nation alone, and that most of the reasons for it sound like something out of the fifties or a bad dystopia novel. I also lean in the direction that there’s a lot of work to be done by both women and men to correct this and that only by working together and making our voices heard can we start that change.

    1. Every single day some elected official is trying to shut down an abortion clinic (unwanted or unexpected pregnancy will def. hurt a woman’s income and future earning power) or worse. It’s appalling.

      1. Those politicians call themselves “pro-life”, but it’s more like pro-birth. They could care less about what happens afterwards, even if the mother is forced to work three jobs and leave the baby with a young daughter just so they can have a roof over their heads and maybe fast food for dinner…if they’re lucky.

  5. i tend towards leaning out whenever possible. i love my job but love my time and life away from it as well. don’t let it define me and understand my worth as a woman/person. know that i contribute to this world. love the issues you bring to light, caitlin, always lead to a great discussion.

    1. Thanks much…

      I feel like there’s a sort of cultural Taylorism at work today: do MORE faster and tell everyone else how to be even more productive. As if this normative bossiness is welcome or helpful. It sells a lot of books, but it doesn’t do a thing for me — because every life is different and every set of choices, if we are fortunate, is ours to make.

      I know the trade-offs of a Big Fancy Job. I’ve had a few and enjoyed some of them very much. But I want a life that includes life, not just work and whatever temporary status/$$$ rewards it can offer us. The minute they fire you, all that sacrifice looks a little hollow. You do not get back all those years and all those hours.

      1. i could not agree more. the places where you have left the fancy jobs and high pay do not care about all of the time and energy you’ve poured into it while you were there, rather, they just move on to the next person. willing to sacrifice, for even less pay.

  6. It’s more like a limbo. How low will you go? And if you don’t bend, what expectations/values/ necessities are you willing to rethink/betray/forfeit?

    I had the great opportunity to travel for a month and a half in Thailand last year–a risky decision–and the experience opened my eyes! I connected with many a fellow traveler, most of them from Europe and very few from the U.S. Learning about the yearly/quarterly/monthly travel plans of people young and old from Germany, France, the Netherlands and more, I finally started to understand just how work-crazed the U.S. is, and just how much life we’re missing when we spend 45+ of our most creative, energized, useful hours each week sitting below fluorescent lighting, solidifying the earnings of others who have little to no concern for our welfare or existence.

    1. I was fortunate to grow up in Canada and had no real clue until I loved to NY of the utter obsession with work and productivity that Americans fetishize — and which are solidified by appalling social policies that offer no safety net if you are not 1) rich 2) working all the time.

      I traveled alone through Europe for four months and never thought twice about “lost productivity.”

      I think there is a dangerous and sad closed loop — one that works very well for corporate America — if young people 1) graduate with so much debt that they cannot afford to travel internationally to gather this sort of wisdom firsthand; 2) they have to get and keep a paycheck to pay down their debts for decades 3) if they have very little paid time off which makes any sort of decent long-haul journey (like Latin America or Africa or Asia) much more difficult to attain and enjoy. 4) the American media do so little foreign or overseas reporting (beyond war or disaster) that any notion of “over there” is non-existent or very misinformed.

      You can’t appreciate and enjoy options if you never know they even exist.

      Isn’t Thailand fantastic!? I spent 22 days there in 1994 and loved every minute of it.

  7. Go for it Broadsideblog. You got a lot to say and you are speaking for a lot of women. I’ve got two songs for you – “Getting Nowhere Fast” and “Sold Out” both are in Osaka Time. The fight is still on, no stopping now.

  8. No lean. Tired of the whole thing. I think your “Mostly, I just want a martini and a nap” statement sums it up, except I’d even give up the alcohol for a nap!

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